And Now For Some Controversy: Bush, Obama and the War on Terror

Earlier this year, I wrote (see here) an op-ed piece for our campus newspaper laying out my expectations for the Obama presidency.  Probably my most controversial prediction, and one that elicited more than a little negative reaction from some of my colleagues, was the following: “Obama’s foreign policy in its broad outlines is not likely to differ much from the Bush administration’s: no retreat from the global war on terror, a lengthy (albeit slightly diminished) presence in Iraq and a beefed up security commitment in Afghanistan.”  I concluded by writing, “Obama faces hard choices at home regarding closing Guantanamo Bay, restoring confidence in the nation’s intelligence services, and generally balancing the need to protect the nation’s borders without sacrificing basic civil liberties. He will find – as Bush did – that in the struggle to balance the two, the weight of constitutional responsibilities will push him toward securing national security first.”

Needless to say, many readers disagreed. If there was one aspect of Obama’s presidency that surely would differ from Bush’s, it would be his handling of foreign relations, particularly as they impacted civil liberties at home.  For many Obama supporters, the promise to reverse the Bush era policies on interrogation, military commissions, rendition and prisoner detention formed the foundation of his promise to be a “change” president.

It is still far too early in the Obama presidency to come to any final conclusions, of course, but not too early to assess my claim that, contrary to what many expected, Obama’s foreign policy will not significantly differ from Bush’s.

Let’s look at the Obama record to date on key foreign policy decision related to the war on terror and civil liberties, and compare it to Bush’s:

1. Closing Guantanamo Bay prison: During the campaign, Obama criticized the use of Guantanamo (Gitmo) to hold enemy combatants for extended periods of time, arguing that it became an unwelcome symbol of the Bush administration’s willingness to violate accepted international norms for treating prisoners.  In his second day as president Obama issued an order to close Gitmo within a year. As I have long taught my students, however, a president’s executive orders carry very little weight unless they are in accord with the preferences of (or not actively opposed by) Congress. Although Obama’s executive order met with initial bipartisan congressional support, there was some concern that Obama had not yet adequately addressed what to do with the detainees there.  That concern became a full-fledged political problem for Obama within the last week when an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress signaled their opposition to closing the prison until Obama comes up with a plan for dealing with the roughly 240 individual still held there. Two days ago, by a vote of 90-6, the Senate denied Obama’s request for $80 million to close the prison. That vote came on the heels of similar vote in the House last week. The problem, from Congress’ perspective (among both Democrats and Republicans) is the political cost of relocating these detainees to mainland prisons – no one wants to accept suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in their backyard. The issue is further complicated by the leak of an unreleased Pentagon report that estimates that about 1 in 7, or roughly 70 of the 534 detainees already released from U.S. detention facilities including Gitmo are now engaged in terrorism or related acts. Understandably, politicians are leery of being accused of releasing someone who may perpetrate the next 9-11 attack.

Bush, you will recall, also advocated closing of Gitmo, but not until the cases of those held there were disposed through trials by military commissions and/or an alternative location for holding detainees could be found.  We see, then, that Obama is discovering what Bush realized: that Gitmo appears to be a horrible choice for holding enemy combatants – except when compared to the alternatives. It is one thing to say you will close Gitmo – quite another to do it. Because Obama made closing Gitmo a symbol of change, I do not doubt that in the end he will follow through on this promise.  But it will require the expenditure of tremendous political capital, and will likely not occur on his preferred timetable.

2. Ending the use of certain “enhanced interrogation procedures”, such as waterboarding, that many believe constitute torture. Obama also issued an executive order on his second day in office requiring that the Army field manual be used as the guide for terrorism interrogations, thus apparently ending the Bush-era practice of waterboarding prisoners.  As you’ll recall that technique was used, sometimes repeatedly, on at least three of the several hundred enemy noncombatants captured during the war on terror.  Despite his belief that waterboarding is torture, Obama has  repeatedly said that he will not pursue charges against anyone who used this or similar interrogation techniques, and he has opposed calls from members of his own party and from the netroots to investigate the use of these practices.  One reason for his reluctance to do so may be his realization that leading Democrats – as indicated by the recent controversy regarding Nancy Pelosi – may have tacitly endorsed the use of such techniques.

3. Rendition:  At the same time that he outlawed waterboarding, Obama also appeared to establish a potential loophole by allowing the continuation of rendition, a policy that allows the CIA to capture suspected terrorists and hold them for short periods in jails in other countries.  Although Obama’s executive order states that: “(a) CIA Detention.  The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.”, it also declares that “(g)  The terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ in section 4(a) of this order do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Critics argue that this simply allows the CIA to oversee the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by third parties on captured enemy combatants before transferring them to U.S. facilities – exactly the policy the Bush administration was accused of employing.

4. Military Commissions: In a decision that deeply disappointed civil libertarians, Obama decided last week to revive the use of military commissions first established by the Bush administration, and later ratified in revised form by Congress, to try some of the detainees currently held at Gitmo.  Obama has promised to build in more safeguards, including restrictions on the use of information obtained through torture, to protect the rights of those enemy combatants who will be tried using military commissions.  But he has accepted the Bush argument that, as enemy combatants, these detainees cannot be tried under regular civil or military courts. This despite saying during the campaign that “It’s time to better protect the American people and our values by bringing swift and sure justice to terrorists through our courts and our Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Upon reviewing the policy, however, Obama has apparently agreed with Bush that some detainees simply cannot be tried through these other avenues.

5. Iraq withdrawal. I’ve blogged previously on this issue, so won’t go into detail except to say that increasingly it appears that U.S. combat troops won’t be leaving Iraq by the date or in the numbers that Obama hoped for during the campaign trail.  It now appears that the U.S. will miss the June deadline for a complete withdrawal of combat forces from Iraqi cities, and there remains significant debate whether Obama will even be able to hold to the Bush-negotiated deadline of removing all combat troops by the end of 2011.  It may be that in order to appear to meet the deadline, the Obama administration will have to fudge the definition of “combat soldiers” in a way that makes it appear that all such soldiers have been withdrawn. His own military commanders continue to make the case for slowing the withdrawal in order to make sure that gains from the surge do not dissipate when U.S. troops withdraw.

We see, then, that Obama moved quickly upon taking office to remove the most controversial symbols of the Bush-era war on terror.  Moreover, in his rhetoric, especially when speaking abroad, Obama has been quick to note the changes in U.S. policy and to condemn Bush-era practices that violated international accords. But when looking at the substance of actually policy change, there has been much less than meets the eye. In fact, what is striking – given how Obama supporters viewed his candidacy – is how much continuity between the Bush and Obama presidencies there has been when it comes to conducting the war on terror.  Who would have predicted this?  (Hint: see above!)

How can this be?  What explains Obama’s reluctance to reverse the major polices underlying Bush’s War on Terror?  It is easy to condemn Obama for failing to fulfill what many, particularly Democrats on the Left, thought he would do as president. The reason he has not done so, however, is not that he was not sincere when making his campaign promises to change the Bush policies governing the war on terror. Instead the explanation is rooted in a point I return to again and again, but one that bears repeating: campaigning is not the same as governing.  When he became president, he assumed a responsibility, and a perspective on politics, that is simply unimaginable on the campaign trail.  More than any single individual in our nation, it is the President who bears the burden of protecting the security of our country.  That vantage point is unique among elected officials; it is not shared by anyone else, and it permeates everything presidents do.  This is not to say that presidents are more powerful in foreign policy – in a later post I’ll make the claim that their foreign policy powers are actually quite weak.  But they do bear a sense of responsibility that Congress, as a collective body, simply doesn’t feel as acutely.

Harry Truman was once interviewed about his decision to go ahead with the development of the H-bomb.  How could he justify the decision?  He replied that he felt it was his responsibility, as president, not to tie the hands of his presidential successors – he owed it to them to make sure they had every tool available to protect the country. His first thought, then, was of the individuals with whom he shared the office of the presidency. Invariably, when presidents are faced with a major foreign policy crisis, the first person they consult, if possible, is a former president.  And why not? No one else really understands what they are going through.

Let me be clear here. I do not mean to denigrate the importance of the symbolic acts Obama has taken so far; the banning of waterboarding, at least directly by the U.S., and the promise to close Gitmo, are significant steps in signaling his intention to reverse, at least in name, the most controversial of the Bush-era policies.  But it is also the case that substantively his policies to date have proved far less of a reversal of Bush’s policies than Obama’s supporters hoped.  Note that Obama does not lack the authority to fulfill those expectations – he could have ended the use of rendition, not revived military commissions, and directed his military commanders to meet his 6-month timetable for withdrawing all combat forces from Iraq.  Despite the media focus on Cheney’s claim that Obama has weakened U.S. security, the plain fact is that most leading Republicans support most of Obama’s policies discussed above precisely because they have not substantially reversed Bush’s.  Put another way, if John McCain had been elected president, it is probable that we would be seeing almost the same policy steps undertaken that Obama has pursued to date.

It is easy to criticize Obama – and anyone who follows the netroots realizes he has angered the Left with his failure to reverse Bush’s policies.  But that criticism, I think, is misdirected. The reason why Obama has largely continued Bush’s foreign policy is because he perceives the same threats, and operates under the same constraints, as Bush did.  Safeguarding the nation is not, in the end, a partisan issue.  It transcends pure politics, even though presidents cannot ignore politics in pursuing this overriding goal. It is why Obama attacks the symbols of Bush’s policies without significantly changing their substance.

The surprise is not that President Obama continues Bush’s foreign policies in the main – it is that anyone ever thought it would be otherwise.




  1. maybe it’s not so controversial: Bob Johnson points out that David Brooks makes a somewhat parallel argument to mine in today’s Times. See:

    Brooks’ point is that the more controversial aspects of Bush’s war on terror all took place very early after 9/11, and that the current, less controversial framework for the war on terror that Obama has largely ratified was largely in place during Bush’s second term. This is a point that I made in my op ed piece last January – here’s what I wrote then: “Ironically, Obama will benefit from Congress’ and the judiciary’s pushback against the Bush administration efforts to broaden the scope of presidential authority in the national security realm; new limits negotiated in the areas of domestic eavesdropping, torture, and the treatment of prisoners means Obama will be spared the need to fight these battles from scratch. “

  2. As further proof of the nonpartisan nature of many presidential foreign policy decisions, I would also argue that President Bush gravitated towards several of Obama’s positions during his last year in office. These include opening low-level diplomatic relations with Iran, agreeing to a timetable for withdrawing American forces in Iraq, and placing renewed emphasis on multilateral approaches to Afghanistan and North Korea. Some of the continuity between Bush and Obamacan therefore be credited to Bush as well as Obama.

    Still, as you point out, Professor Dickinson, the approach and tone of the Obama administration has proven to be remarkably different from the Bush administration, a fact that was brought into even greater relief when Cheney took to the podium at the American Enterprise Institute. I would concede that this is partly due to the passing of time: the 9/11 attacks have faded from public consciousness. Obama can afford to lay out a relatively complicated argument and policy because the country has become much more patient and deliberative than it was in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

    Nevertheless, it struck me yesterday that the stylistic differences between Cheney and Obama cannot simply be cast aside as being “superficial” because the language employed by these two men highlights profound differences in the way these two individuals (perhaps administrations) approach questions of national security. The fact that Cheney and Bush mention 9/11 at the beginning of almost every important speech on security is not just a rhetorical device, it is also evocative of the way in which they seem to have approached such decisions intellectually. I say this because recounting the events of September 11 is often (and in Cheney’s speech was) the premise upon which diametrically opposed policy options are presented: you’re either with us or against us; we either do everything we can to stop terrorism or we let the terrorists win; or in Cheney’s words yesterday,

    “we’re left to draw one of two conclusions – and here is the great dividing line in our current debate over national security. You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked, and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event – coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort. Whichever conclusion you arrive at, it will shape your entire view of the last seven years, and of the policies necessary to protect America for years to come.”

    Contrast this approach with Obama’s: yesterday, he touched briefly on the very real threats facing our country today before complicating the picture by emphasizing the importance of the rule of law and the other values enshrined in the documents surrounding him (and let’s not downplay the symbolism Obama sought by holding his speech in the National Archives). From a rhetorical and, I believe, intellectual standpoint, Obama frames his position by considering the implications of policy option on both national security and on the core values of American democracy: liberty, justice, and the rule of law. What is the outcome? Obama’s speech does not present a black and white view of the world, instead, he explains in great detail that it has been difficult to balance two competing interests, but also that he has identified some pragmatic approaches that he believes will improve national security without sacrificing key values.

    But according to Cheney’s worldview, this is simply not possible: “Critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values. But no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things. And when an entire population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with American values than to stop them.”

    Here we come to the basis of the disagreement: for Cheney, national security trumps other considerations – fighting terrorism is the preeminent American value; for Obama, there is more of a balancing act between security and values, forces that are not necessarily always in opposition to one another. There are countless debates that stem from this specific point of disagreement, and many are worth careful consideration. For instance, I think it is fascinating that such different modes of comprehending the issues at stake nevertheless result in substantial points of agreement between the two individuals.

    As a student of history and political science, I am particularly struck by the fact that Administrations that show public disregard for the rule of law often jeopardize the very causes they seek to promote. It is perhaps Machiavellian of me to suggest that the Bush administration might have created a more solid legacy if it had paid more rhetorical and symbolic fealty to the very values Obama highlighted in his speech; yet, there is also a part of me that instinctively rejects the practicality of such deception, for I think that it is still true that in American politics, public perception is not altogether removed from reality. In other words, it would have been nearly impossible for Cheney to adorn his speech with some of Obama’s language because the words would have been so obviously hollow and flat that they would have betrayed Cheney’s true convictions. The irony of course, is that if things continue as they stand now, a large number of controversial Bush-era policies will find new life under the Obama Administration, and that Obama’s mastery of symbolism and balanced rhetoric may be the only thing that has changed. Which would only beg the question: why didn’t Bush adopt a similar tact all along?

  3. And Conor Shaws points out another article that makes a similar argument – see the TNR piece by Jack Goldsmith at:

    Goldsmith points out additional areas in which Obama has largely continued Bush’s policies, including the use of predator drones to target suspected terrorists, the continuation of the Bush domestic surveillance practices, and support for the State Secrets doctrine used to protect sources of information in court in the interest of national security.

    As I did, Goldsmith argues that Obama’s continuation of these policies reflects the movement from candidate to president, and the change in perspective that entails.

    And for still another version of my claim, but with a more partisan tinge, see today’s Washington Post piece by Charles Krauthammer.

    Of course, if you don’t have time to read all these pieces, just go back to my op ed piece from several months ago, linked above. It lays it out all…. :~)

  4. Conor – A very thoughtful piece. I am skeptical that Obama’s specific stance during the campaign pushed Bush to adopt the Iraq withdrawal pledge, or multilateral talks with Korea. In my view, the Iraq timetable is driven largely by the success of the surge, which created an opening for Iraqi’s to force the issue (aided to be sure by Democratic control of Congress). Same for Korea – it was more than just Obama’s criticism that led to a change (if it was a change) there.

    I think you raise an excellent point regarding Bush’s failure to guard his power prospects by bringing in Congress, and the courts for that matter, or at least anticipating their reactions, in the early days of the War on Terror. It’s one I’ve made as well. In the end, he had to negotiate iwth both – so why not start from that position, rather than being forced to bargain and all the lost of prestige and reputation that caused? I think Bush officials would probably cite two responses: first, the urgency they felt to act quickly after 9-11. I think they didn’t believe they had sufficient time for a long, drawn out policy process. My response to this has always been that Congress likely would have been more pliable early in the crisis than later. But there’s a second response Bush officials might make: that they DID keep Congress apprised. We often forget that Bush did get Congress to pass resolutions of support to prosecute the war on terror and to invade Iraq. More importantly, as the Pelosi controversy suggests, there may have been alot more behind the scenes consultation going on than we know about, at least so far. That’s one reason why I suspect Obama is not eager to take up a Truth Commission-like inquiry – it may implicate Democrats as architects, or at least willing participants, in the early controversial stages of the war on terror.

    A final thought: don’t underestimate the advantage Obama has with hindsight – it enables him to continue those pieces of the Bush war on terror that have worked and have political support, while jettisoning the others. So although you and others are correct, I think, to point out that he has changed the tone of the prosecution of the war on terror, I’m not so sure he would have used the same language had he been in Bush’s position, presiding the in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. Of course, we’ll never know….

  5. I don’t think that we have many points of disagreement. I didn’t mean to claim that Bush adopted Obama’s policies per say, but rather that Bush’s actions, particularly during his last year in office, were a significant departure from the administration’s prior policies. Obama would have moved to overturn far more of Bush’s policies if he had taken over in January 2008, not January 2009.

    I also think it is an open question as to whether the events of 9/11 in some senses dictated Bush’s reaction as President. While difficult in today’s political climate, I think it is important to attempt to consider what it would have been like to be the President of the United States at that moment in time and how that event would have affected one’s approach to future decisions (I probably would have wanted to sit in that classroom in Florida and figure out what I wanted to do also!) On the other hand, I think there are many who would claim that Bush carried a certain degree of short and single-mindedness into his administration, not just out of it. For me, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle: the terrorist attacks raised the stakes tremendously and put the existing, perhaps inadequate, decision making processes under a considerable amount of strain.

    In such a scenario, I think we needed a prescient leader or a prescient team of aides capable of showing respect and restraint towards the magnitude of the responsibility placed at the hands of the executive in the months and years that followed. While Congress and the Courts had a role in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the informal and formal powers of the Presidency expanded dramatically as the nation turned to Bush for leadership and our laws bestowed him with the authority to address a grave threat to our country. This is not in-itself the problem: as you know, I think that the strength of our Constitution lies in part in the remarkable powers we grant to the Presidency in times like these – authority that allows our country to take necessary actions when time is of the essence. Rather, the problem is that it takes a remarkably prudent president to recognize that the only real form of restraint in exercising such powers is self-restraint. My guess – as I have no evidence, only impressions – is that there was not a great deal of restraint within the Bush Administration, either before or after 9/11 and that those elements that had the potential to stand in the way of administration policy, such as Colin Powell, were marginalized from the beginning.

    The beauty of the Constitution is that it allows considerable room for strong, individual leadership at precisely those moments when such leadership is required. The trouble is that events conspire to decide which president is in office at those moments when individual leadership becomes paramount. But perhaps, as you and Neustadt have argued, there is a way around dependence on fate – a way to build prudence into the very institution of the Presidency whether it is changing the way in which we think about Presidential power or whether it is adopting a more effective staff structure. In any case, I think it is clear from my comments that I think we benefited neither from prudent leadership nor from institutional prudence in the wake of 9/11, much the same as you argue above.

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